Morning found me working on a cowboy breakfast at the Outlaw Café, under the watchful eye of a waitress who is evidently in training to be an EMT.
“Is everything all right over here? How are you doing? Are you doing okay?”
Carbon County is where I grew up, and yet I feel like a stranger among the people who live there now. Nowadays I seem to have more in common with passers-through, such as the two California bikers at the adjoining table who had been wending their way northward through southeastern Utah on secondary and tertiary roads. I warned them about the Nine Mile road, but they didn’t take me seriously. How could a construction zone possibly be more challenging than the Paris-Dakar run? Well, they’ll soon find out.
From Wellington I turned south onto a back road that runs past irrigated alfalfa fields and humble farmsteads shaded by enormous cottonwoods. The greenery soon gave way to a grayish alkaline flat sprinkled with beer cans and dotted here and there with dead trees and bullet-riddled car carcasses. Ah, home sweet home!
By and by I rolled into Huntington, gateway to Huntington Canyon, a place that holds a special place in my heart. I remember fly fishing Huntington Creek with my dad, family reunions at Old Folks Flat, overnight campouts with teenaged cohorts, roping and tying mountain lions with my friend Martin Ballard. Earlier this summer, alas, the canyon was ravaged by a forest fire—which reminds me of the time back in 1963 when I covered another wildfire in the canyon. At the time I was a student at Carbon College and a rising star in Dean Walton’s journalism class. Walton, who moonlighted as a stringer for the Salt Lake Tribune, had left me in charge of the telephone while he was on summer vacation—and as ill luck would have it, a major forest fire broke out on my watch.
I drove out to survey the scene. I could see clouds of smoke and red flames licking the ridgeline. I could see firefighting trucks and now and then an airplane. But I had no idea who was in charge, or who I was supposed to interview. How to gather facts? I had no idea. So I did what all writers do whenever they don’t have any facts: I turned to my old friend the adjective.
Later that day I phoned in my “story” to the Tribune’s regional editor. A man named Goldie.
“Earlier today firefighters battled flames in Huntington Canyon, amid plumes of black, acrid smoke along high ridges where the charred remnants of the great fire of 1938 stand like grim epitaphs…”
“Whoa,” interrupted Goldie. “Let me ask you something. Aren’t ALL epitaphs grim?”
This summer’s fire has been put out, leaving still more blackened tree trunks, or grim epitaphs if you will. The fire took out large stands of spruce and denuded the steep hillsides, which resulted in a flash flood that nearly washed away the picturesque Stuart Guard Station, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in 1934. I remember once I spent a night there as a guest of the parents of a friend of mine—parents who just happened to have a key to the front door.
While his folks were off bow hunting, Mike and I tested some other keys on other locks and managed to get into a shed where firefighting supplies are stored. So we helped ourselves to some survival gear we figured would come in handy at a secret line camp we two had established on Wood Hill. Later that night we rolled out our sleeping bags on the kitchen floor, where we slept fitfully because our bags were stuffed with pilfered loot. I was so worried that Mike’s stepfather, who was quite an intimidating figure, would take notice of how lumpy Mike and I looked, lying there on the linoleum.
Michael E. Tatton later repented and went on to publish something called The Family Illustrated Memory Bible (leather bound), which is available from Amazon for $29.85. I, too, have written a book, which is also available from Amazon, hard bound for $17.12. Only nine left (more on the way), so order soon! Be advised,it’s chock full of adjectives.
Flood and fire have made a mess of the watercourse, but happily the twisty road to the summit remains intact, and my big, hundred-horsepower Beemer had no trouble climbing to the summit. Ah, the high country! Insofar as the Menzies clan of Utah has a homeland, the Wasatch Plateau is it. It’s where my Scottish forebears settled late in the nineteenth century, and I’m surprised how much it resembles the Perthshire countryside, home of the majestic Castle Menzies. Only difference is, my immediate forebears all lived in humble wooden shacks instead of stone castles.
Speaking of humble wooden shacks, on my way down Fairview Canyon I spotted a dilapidated house in front of which was a sign that read: FOR SALE: ITALIAN CHARM. Well, now, how could I possibly pass that up?
Turns out the proprietor, Willard Smith, sells custom-made Italianate charm bracelets. I decided to buy one for my wife, and while Smith sifted through his stock in search of charms that didn’t say “bitch” or “biker bitch” I learned more about him. Smith is 72 and divides his time between Fairview and Oatman, Arizona—which is a favorite hangout for feral burros and equally feral motorcyclists. There, he sells a lot of charm bracelets during the annual Laughlin River Run. In Fairview, he’s dabbled in various and sundry enterprises, including porta-potties. He’d like to move, but first he’d have to raise some cash by taking out a reverse mortgage on his house. Problem is, the bank isn’t interested in his house because it won’t pass inspection. It won’t pass inspection because the roof has caved in. So there it sits, along with Willard, going nowhere.